Government Technology

Chattanooga Claims America’s Fastest Broadband Service

April 3, 2012 By

During an evening telecast in 1969, newsman Walter Cronkite made a startling announcement: Chattanooga, Tenn., had the worst air pollution in America. It proved to be an alarming call to action for civic leaders, who have been working to distance their region from a bygone era of industrialism ever since.

In many ways, the city has succeeded. Chattanooga’s well-kept downtown and waterfront have been revitalized. The Tennessee Aquarium, billed the “largest freshwater aquarium in the world,” opened in 1992. The city’s minor-league baseball team christened a new stadium in 2000. And the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus continues to grow. Music festivals, art museums and rib joints have come to town — the trappings of a cosmopolitan community rather than a blue-collar dumping ground.

But Mayor Ron Littlefield remembers how things once were. Since moving to Chattanooga in the ’60s, he has been witness to the city’s gradual transformation. And now, Littlefield is watching over another metamorphosis — this one centered on amazingly fast broadband connectivity.

Chattanooga now calls itself The Gig City — in reference to the fiber-to-the-home network built across 600 square miles of Chattanooga and surrounding Hamilton County. Up to 1 gigabit per second service now is available to all businesses, residences, and public and private institutions. The network has the business community dreaming big, with aspirations of becoming a Silicon Valley of the South. Meanwhile, the city and county are banking on the high-speed connectivity to help improve public safety and educate the region’s workforce.

“Here is a community with a Southern quality of life, has a pretty good university, has a lot of amenities, and once was the dirtiest city in America,” Littlefield said. “And now [it has] this great technological tool that we can use to build a future.”

How did Chattanooga land on the leading edge? A little bit of good fortune, a lot of persistence and — excuse the cliché — public-private collaboration.

Is Chattanooga Really First?

It depends on the definition. The Gig Tank’s website proclaims that “Chattanooga is the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer 1 gigabit-per-second fiber Internet service to all of its residents and businesses.” Although this appears to be a true statement, it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, said Craig Settles, an analyst who covers the wireless and community broadband market. There were 1 Gbps community networks before Chattanooga’s, but none that have matched its 600-square-mile coverage area. Santa Monica, Calif., built a fiber network initially to replace its legacy voice and communications systems. The money that Santa Monica saved with the new technology was reinvested to expand the network beyond just government use. Connection speeds now exceed 1 gig, but the network covers about 25 square miles, Settles said. Another difference is that the network originated from Santa Monica’s IT department and not the public utility, as in Chattanooga’s case. And Wilson, N.C., followed a path similar to Santa Monica, he said.

What makes Chattanooga stand out, Settles says, is the coordinated and singular focus exhibited by everyone — the business community and government leaders — on the messaging about Chattanooga’s network. Economic development consulting firm Kinsey Probasco Hays, along with business incubator Lamp Post Group and accelerator The Company Lab, are three of the key drivers.

According to Settles, “Kinsey Probasco Hays is a driving force behind the local and national awareness campaign. The chamber [of commerce] provides much of the hands-on national joint marketing of the city and the network, while the EPB’s team markets the service locally. The chamber, EPB, River City Co. — which some call the ‘Department of Downtown’— and the Enterprise Council (a promoter of high-tech economic development) team up to recruit new companies to move or expand to Chattanooga.”

So although 1-gig networks have preceded Chattanooga, Settles said by marketing effectively, the city did what others haven’t.

The roots of Chattanooga’s superfast network begin at the downtown headquarters of the Electric Power Board (EPB). As its name implies, the municipally owned utility company delivers electricity to the community. In 2007, the EPB began planning for a fiber network, seeing it as a way to improve the electric grid’s reliability.

EPB officials concluded that the fiber-optic network would allow the utility to detect and fix outages almost instantaneously. This, in turn, would save money by automating the switches that control and route power across the grid. The old way of doing business requires a technician to drive a truck to an outage location to turn switches on and off. The EPB calculated that automating the process would save millions of dollars annually, enough to eventually pay for the infrastructure upgrade.

“We made the decision to use fiber to every user rather than just piggybacking on the old copper wires, because we just felt like fiber is where things are going,” Littlefield said. As mayor, he works closely with the EPB’s board and appoints its members. “So if we were going to invest, we might as well invest in the future instead of old technology.”

Then, amid the nation’s economic upheaval a few years ago, Chattanooga got some good news: $111 million in federal stimulus funding that sped up construction. The infusion of cash let the city complete the project in two years instead of five as originally planned. The 1-gig network was unveiled officially in September 2010 and is now available to 170,000 homes and businesses.

What started as an initiative to improve the resiliency of the EPB’s communications pushed the public utility into a wider business — selling telecom, television and Internet services. With the addition of the fiber network, the EPB now offers Internet protocol television and tiered service levels for broadband. A basic 30 Mbps connection to the home costs around $50 monthly — the same price that many commercial carriers charge for much slower speeds. The EPB charges about $350 for the 1-gigabit package.

The network already is paying dividends for customers, said David Wade, the EPB’s chief operating officer. Though many homes prefer the basic 30 MB service, that’s still about five times faster than what the average American household is accustomed to. The upload and download speeds are symmetrical — equally fast both ways — unlike most service providers, which typically offer slower uploading speeds.

In addition to the convenience of crisp high-definition television and nearly instant downloading, the network also is delivering other tangible improvements.

Public safety is a big one. The EPB allows a wireless mesh network for public safety to “piggyback” on the infrastructure. Law enforcement uses this private local-area network to watch security cameras and adjust the intensity of LED lighting in public spaces. The fire department can use the fast connectivity to remotely download floor plans of buildings.

“If, God forbid, we should have something like a Columbine situation in Chattanooga, we will be able to assess the situation much better,” Littlefield said, referring to the high school shooting in Colorado that killed 13 in 1999.

The city also is wiring stoplights into the network to optimize traffic patterns according to the time of day, and will be able to send out real-time alerts if drinking water is contaminated.

Wade said the best is yet to come. Features that haven’t been dreamed up yet will someday become routine. “We have had economic drivers throughout the years, whether it was the interstate [highway] or airline travel,” Wade said. “But now if, you have the ability to virtually do anything, the opportunities are really unlimited.”

As predicted, the network also made the power grid more reliable. When in April 2011 a swarm of tornadoes touched down in the area, three of the EPB’s seven existing radio communications sites went down. Within the area that was upgraded to fiber optic, however, only 5 percent of the communications network was lost, Wade said.

Seeing the project come to fruition has been exciting, Wade said. “You see opportunities coming to our community that wouldn’t be possible. It is really a privilege to be part of something that is good for the entire community.”

How Fast Is 1 Gbps?

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